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Is woke culture totalitarian?

The woke brigade label anything they disagrees with as 'dangerous', 'fascist' or 'evil'. Credit: Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

The woke brigade label anything they disagrees with as 'dangerous', 'fascist' or 'evil'. Credit: Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

August 20, 2019   6 mins

A majority of people polled in the US, Canada and Britain say political correctness is a problem. And no wonder. Today mainstream politicians, parties, think tanks and bureaucrats tie themselves in knots to avoid soundbites that could be portrayed as racist, sexist or homophobic. Corporations recall shoes with the American flag on the back at the whim of woke athletes. Literature, theatre and art is evaluated on its politics, not its beauty or authenticity. Nations seeking to defend themselves from rapid ethnic change or the loss of power to supranational bodies are assailed as ‘reactionary’ by ‘progressives’.

The terms ‘reactionary’ and ‘progressive’ were staples of communist doctrine, Polish professor Ryszard Legutko reminds us in his edgy and thought-provoking new book. He should know. Growing up in Poland after the war, he took great risks to produce a dissident Samizdat anti-communist magazine, ‘Arka’. In The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, Legutko points to the eerie similarity between 20th-century communist and contemporary liberal societies, providing western readers with an important new vantage point on problems of our current moment.

Having experienced the communist regime first-hand, he is well-placed to spot the symptoms of ideological tyranny today. Anything which stood in the way of the forward march of socialism was labelled by communists as ‘reactionary’, ‘bourgeois’ or ‘idealist’. Like today’s progressives, he says, they believed that familial, ethnic, national and religious traditions were obstacles to the revolution – atavisms to be overcome and ultimately dismantled.

Numerous artists and intellectuals jumped aboard the express, eagerly suppressing their rational faculties. Alongside the party apparatchiks, these ‘lumpen intellectuals’ constituted the shock troops of the socialist movement. Average citizens stepped into line to avoid harassment and intimidation.

Arguments no longer revolved around truth, but were judged by their fidelity to the tenets of the secular religion. You were either with the movement or against it – those who tried to straddle the middle ground were denounced by socialists as ‘bourgeois’. The dishonest ‘slippery slope’ charge was repeatedly laid by communists to indict moderate opponents seeking some form of compromise between competing positions. Those on the opposite side of the debate were deemed ‘dangerous’ rather than incorrect.

History, the socialists believed, was moving inexorably in the direction of ‘progress’, and the role of the vanguard was to vanquish those standing in its way. Sound familiar? Anyone exposed to the power of the cultural Left in today’s liberal institutions, where ‘because it’s 2019’ is a killer argument, will recognise this. In communist Poland, the millenarian vision was the worker’s paradise.

Today’s progressive ideology, what I term ‘Left-modernism’ in my book Whiteshift, is a fusion of cosmopolitan liberal-individualism and cultural egalitarianism. Its perfectionist dream is a society in which historically-disadvantaged groups based on race, sex and gender outperform their privileged oppressors, while diversity accelerates toward infinity. Those who oppose it are immediately branded ‘reactionary’ or ‘dangerous’ by progressives.

Legutko writes of being “more and more exposed to an overwhelming liberal-democratic omnipresence”, which “permeates public and private lives, emanates from the media, advertising, films, theatre and visual arts
through educational curricula from kindergartens to universities, and through works of art”.

It finds its ultimate political expression in the European Union, he says, with its manifold agencies and directives. For the author, the EU had laudable origins, but once the 68ers gained control, the institutions morphed into a project to create ‘European Man’ as if ‘two and a half thousand years’ of European history had come to an end with the codification of a final set of ‘European Values’.

Opposing the project is viewed by its champions and functionaries as a form of blasphemy, much like opposing Marxist doctrine was in communist Poland.

Legutko finds conservatives agreeing to play by the rules set by liberalism, to use its lexicon, and condemn the sins in its catechism: “racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination
.”.  He also makes an important observation about the artificiality of the communities favoured by liberalism’s ideologues. Marx and Lenin may have lauded the ‘workers’, but they disdained workers’ actual culture and communities. Rather than really-existing people, with their traditions, what the Marxists celebrated were politicised constructions, like the ‘proletariat’.

Today, we encounter similar politicised abstractions, such as ‘People of Colour’ or ‘LGBTQ’, which bear little resemblance to actual social groups. Those minorities who don’t play their assigned role may be accused of ‘internalised misogyny’ or ‘internalised racism’. The Marxist theory of false consciousness rides again.

Where the book goes off the rails, though, is in its failure to distinguish liberal democracy from Left-modernism. The first is a venerable set of political principles, the second a historically-specific fusion of cosmopolitan liberal-individualism and cultural egalitarianism, which emerged in the first decade of the 1900s, gained intellectual prominence in the 1920s and 30s, and exploded onto the scene in the 1960s. Since then, this creed has been steadily infiltrating elite institutions of society by hijacking and weaponising norms of politeness in organisations (‘political correctness’) to secure acquiescence through intimidation.

Contemporary liberalism’s resemblance to communism stems from the fact that Left-modernism drew strength from waves of ex-communists entering the movement, beginning with the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and ending with the fall of communism in 1989. They brought their doctrinaire, Manichaean worldview with them, translating their object of devotion from the working class to disadvantaged biological groups. As they marched through western institutions, spreading political correctness, they reached a tipping point, acquiring enough power in certain sectors to become an establishment or even an Inquisition – a leaderless movement whose critical mass could rival the state-led communist juggernaut of old.

Legutko is right about the nature of contemporary progressivism and its resemblance to socialist tyranny. However, he writes from the perspective of a Catholic conservative (he is a Law and Justice Party MEP) with integralist, anti-democratic impulses. This is an important new strand of thought on the Right, encompassing American figures such as Sohrab Ahmari and, to a far lesser extent, Patrick Deneen. This religious stance, in my view, aims at too wide a target and mistakes surface usage of the term ‘liberalism’ with its essential character. Its prescriptions simply replace a secular form of political correctness with a religious version.

In effect, Legutko fails to spot the important difference between what Isaiah Berlin terms ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ liberty. Negative liberty consists of the procedures and institutions which protect a sphere of freedom for individuals against the state and other institutions, as well as each other. Positive liberty involves the visions of the good life and good society that people can promote with their newfound liberties.

Political correctness is a form of positive liberalism which has nothing whatsoever to do with negative liberty – indeed it subverts it. The principle of individual rights must be defended, and it is disingenuous to argue, as he does, that enlarging the sphere of freedom somehow fuels progressivism.

Legutko adopts the classical critique of democracy – that it leads to a coarsening of taste, neglecting beauty and virtue in favour of entertainment – and favours an aristocratic sensibility which found favour among a wide range of thinkers from Plato to Catholic theologians to John Stuart Mill. What he fails to see is that this is also a form of positive liberalism.

Indeed, its elitism is one of the wellsprings of Left-modernism. One can passionately argue for the higher virtues and taste, but once this informs hierarchies, norms and institutions, it begins to censure vernacular culture. This renders it as oppressive as the contemporary compulsion to be ‘modern’ in one’s artistic taste. Negative liberalism does not automatically lead to positive liberalism. Japan, Korea, or the fledgling democratic movement in Hong Kong stand as clear-cut cases of liberal democracy without the virus of coercive progressivism.

Legutko would argue that liberal democracy tends inexorably toward coercive Left-modernism. There is truth here, insofar as the symbolic and emotional apparatus needed to mobilise people to fight for equal opportunities and rights for citizens can take on a life of its own, overshooting to become a crusade for equal group outcomes and rights across borders. But there is nothing necessary about this development. The baby of liberal democracy should not be thrown out with the bathwater of Left-modernism. Many voices, notably in this publication, are fighting to reform the best system yet devised by pushing against the tyranny of Left-modernism.

One final point. Legutko’s book can be read as a psychiatric report into the damage Left-modernism is doing to the cause of liberal democracy outside the West. Every time an athlete who appears to be a man wins a women’s sporting competition, Hollywood overdoses on wokeness at an awards ceremony, or an activist stages a hate-crime hoax, the prestige of liberal democracy suffers. New weapons are handed to opponents of liberty in authoritarian societies. Those who champion the rational form of liberalism based on equality of treatment and procedural liberty can now be accused of trying to transform the culture and ethos of their society.

All of which places a responsibility on sensible western liberals to push back the ideologues who would sacrifice centuries of hard-won liberties on the altar of utopia.

Eric Kaufmann is Professor at the University of Buckingham, and author of the upcoming Taboo: Why Making Race Sacred Led to a Cultural Revolution (Forum Press UK, June 6)/The Third Awokening: A 12-Point Plan for Rolling Back Progressive Extremism (Bombardier Books USA, May 14).


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Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago

I have changed my profile picture in reponse to Edinburgh University renaming its Hume Tower.

Harry Potter
Harry Potter
3 years ago

As someone who has been in a truly communist country, “reactionary” is a disgusting word to me. The only memories that come close to this word are the Cultural Revolution and ignorance, the dark ages of China in the 1950s and 1960s. The word has now become a joke in China, used to make fun of the propaganda of that era.
But I am utterly shocked that the Western “progressive” today is ignorantly using it as some kind of stuff that had moral superiority.

Petko Radacko
Petko Radacko
1 year ago

Old commies wanted economical progress, socially they were right wing. Exact opposite from todays woke asses. Today woke asses are mostly economical right wing, socially left. Exact opposite of old good commies